Spoiler Alert

Red-hot Cold Open, Femmes Fatales Get 'Game of Thrones' Off to a Flying Start

Season 7 kicked off with a show-stopping cold open, a mass murder and a reminder why women are the driving force behind the show. And, bizarrely, an Ed Sheeran cameo

Arya Stark
Cersei Lannister
Daenerys
Sansa Stark
AP, Uncredited/AP, Macall B. Polay/AP

Sunday was a good day for women on television.

It started in the afternoon, when the BBC announced that, for the first time in 13 incarnations and over half a century, the role of “Doctor Who” would be played by a woman. Then, in the evening, HBO aired the first episode of the seventh season of “Game of Thrones,” in which four of the main characters are women and in which there was absolutely no flashing of gratuitous breasts. Chalk up another victory for the feminists?

Unusually for “Game of Thrones,” the first episode – of what we already know is the penultimate season of the show – began with a cold open. This was a dramatic, four-minute scene, which managed to rack up an impressive death count even by the bloody high standards of “Game of Thrones.”

Even before the iconic title sequence and the stirring theme music, little Arya Stark settled a long overdue score with House Frey. Having disguised herself as Walder Frey – the ruthless head of the House Frey who wiped out the Stark family at the Red Wedding and who she killed in a spectacularly gruesome fashion in Season 6 – she summoned “every Frey who means a damn thing.”

Ed Sheeran's cameo on 'Game Of Thrones' Season 7 Premiere HBO

Having thanked them all for helping slaughter the Starks, she then proceeded to ply them with poisoned wine. As they started choking and coughing up blood, she turned the tables on them with delicious irony: “Brave men, all of you,” she told the assembled Frey noblemen. “Butchered a woman pregnant with her babe. Cut the throat of a mother of five. Slaughtered your guests after inviting them into your home.”

“But,” she told them, “you didn’t slaughter every one of the Starks Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.”

Hard to follow

The problem with a dramatic cold open, of course, is that it can be hard to follow. Especially when the rest of the episode is like the opening moves in what will be a long and closely-fought chess match: Pieces are moved into position, gambits are alluded to and strategies are painstakingly put into place. And, as in chess, the queen (or would-be queens) is the most important piece.

With Arya Stark firmly established as the primary femme fatale (literally: she was the only character to take a life in this episode) we are taken – after a lingering and ominous reminder that the White Walkers are making their way southward toward the wall – to Winterfell, the ancestral castle and seat of power of House Stark, where there is a victory and a defeat for the feminist movement. 

British actor Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in a scene from "Game of Thrones".
HBO via AP

Sansa, Ayra’s older sister, loses out to her half-brother, Jon Snow, in a quarrel about what should happen to the castles of families that betrayed the Starks at the Battle of the Bastards. But, over the objections of some of the more traditional northern lords, it is agreed that women and girls should be involved in preparations for the upcoming battle against the White Walkers.

Lyanna Mormont, the preteen Lady of Bear Island and a worthy candidate to usurp Arya as Ms. Badass, delivers a rallying call for women everywhere: “I might be small, Lord Glover, and I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you. And I don’t need your permission to defend the North.”

A woman with a plan

Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, the stronghold of the Lannister family, newly childless Queen Cersei has a map of the Seven Kingdoms painted onto the floor of her palace, which she is using to plot her campaign to retake full control. Compared to Jaime, her equivocating brother/lover, Cersei is driven and focused. She knows that her house is surrounded on all sides by enemies, and she intends to do something about it. She may be remorseless, cold and almost psychopathically motivated, but she’s got a plan, which is more than can be said of her twin.

As the episode draws to a close, Daenerys Targaryen – who holds more official positions than Benjamin Netanyahu – makes her first appearance. With her dragons screeching overhead, Daenerys returns to Dragonstone, her place of birth, from where she too plans to capture the Seven Kingdoms. Dragonstone is abandoned and Daenerys – accompanied by her loyal entourage – simply strolls in and retakes the castle that has been her family’s for centuries.

If there is strength in silence, then Daenerys’ return to Dragonstone could well be the most powerful scene of the episode. With portentous music playing in the background, she walks past the throne, eschewing the trappings of power, and marches straight into the war room last used by Stannis Baratheon, the previous occupant of Dragonstone, for his catastrophic campaign to capture King’s Landing.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen with one of her dragons in a scene from 'Game of Thrones.'
/AP

In the last scene of the episode, with advisor Tyrion Lannister by her side, a determined Daenerys says, with a simplicity, directness of purpose and focus that is shared by all of the main female characters in “Game of Thrones,” “Shall we begin?” Indeed, let us begin.

Five comments

1. I am not usually a fan of roles being filled by stars who are not actors, but British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s appearance as a minstrel soldier in this episode was a charming interlude; the writers used it to advance the plot and fill in some holes.

2. Just a few hours after watching the first episode of Season 7, I am already upset that there are just six episodes to go. My appetite has been whetted and I am afraid that seven episodes simply won’t satiate.

3. Unlike my colleague, Adrian Hennigan, who wrote last week’s TV review, I have no problem with dragons. From Puff to Smaug, these mythical creatures have been very much a part of my fictional world since childhood. If we can suspend our disbelief for long enough to buy into E.T. and Indiana Jones, surely we can extend the same courtesy to our fire-breathing friends.

4. I honored the return of “Game of Thrones” by waking up at an ungodly hour – and that’s ungodly for the new gods and the old – to watch Episode 1, which aired at 4 A.M. in Israel. Barring a case of insomnia, I will not be showing the same commitment to the remaining six episodes.

5. Finally, a gripe that will mean nothing to most people, but which has been a pet peeve of mine since “Game of Thrones” hit the screens: The Hebrew name for the show, when translated back into English, is “Games of Throne.” It’s a little thing, I know, but it bugs me.